CyberHounds taking robotics to next level




FORT MADISON - They've been tinkering for the past couple years with miniature robotics, but a group of CyberHounds at Fort Madison High School are taking things to a whole new level.

A group of about 23 students in the CyberHound Club at F.M.H.S. are shooting for the S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) moon, so to speak, and are aiming at competing at a high level, international competition in 2018, with a 6-foot, 200 lb. robot. The robot must be built, programmed, and operated to specifications set by the FIRST program.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by Dean Kaman to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology. Its program features levels for all students in grades K-12 starting with Lego platforms and moving into fully functional robot mechanisms.

The first phase of the competitive program is a public relations and fundraising model. The group is looking to raise $20,000 in sponsorships, including in-kind donations, to help offset the costs of registration, the robotic basic kit, and the event itself.

The annual fees for team registration, a robot kit of parts, and event participation are $5,000 - $6,000. Additional costs for travel, food, team shirts, and other optional items will vary.

Senior Chris Brown, who has been a part of the club since its inception three years ago, said letters will soon be sent out to area businesses to help with fundraising and in-kind donations. Plans for sponsors include a mention on t-shirts, possibly on the robot itself, a banner, and publicity of the event.

Joseph Johnstun, who serves as one of two coaches for the group, said in-kind donations would be like tools, safety glasses, lines of credit for parts and supplies, workspace, advising, and other essential parts of the program.

The group will attend two competitions after they complete the six-week building portion of the competition. Members of the club will travel to Cedar Falls on Jan. 6, 2018 where the FIRST organizers will reveal the details of the competition, specifically what specs the robots have and what activity the unit will be challenged to accomplish.

Previous years have including shooting basketballs 30-feet or hanging large rings in gymnasiums.

The first competition will take place on Feb. 17 in Cedar Falls.

"There are two starting competitions and, depending on how we score, we can go to additional competitions all the way to an international event," said Brown.

The two initial competitions result in awards and prizes for the competing teams and the opportunity to compete in the FIRST Championship, according the FIRST website,

"The past several years we've been in FIRST Tech Challenge and now we're in FIRST Robotic Challenge," Johnstun said. "Those were small skeleton type units. The ones that we are going to be building are as big as me and weigh more than I do."

He said the tech robots were typically in the $200 range, but this step up carries a price tag closer to $4,000 in parts and then other items that could possibly be donated.

"One of the beautiful things is that we've gone out and visited with other departments - working with business students, art students for design of t-shirts and banners," said Shalisse Johnston, the other coach, who is also the FMHS Talented and Gifted Coordinator and an English teacher. "We've got kids who are interested in building websites to help us with that and all these different areas."

The high school is the only one in Lee County engaged in the competition and the closest other high school to get involved is Ottumwa.

"We'll probably spend 3 to 4 hours every day after school during the six-week build time frame," Brown said.

Brown and sophomore Nathaniel Harter, said they hope the S.T.E.M. program yields a career.

"One of the reason we started to do this upper level is that it's a more real-world experience. These kids can put this on their resume and it's a very big thing," Shalisse Johnstun said.

Entrants into the competition also have a leg up on college scholarship opportunities connected to FIRST.

Brown said he likes the program because it's the only one in the school that deals directly with S.T.E.M. initiatives. Brown earned a trip over the summer to Boston where he was exposed to Noble prize winners and others highly engaged in S.T.E.M. activities.

"This is the only program this school has that is S.T.E.M., the others are either athletic or social," Brown said.

Shalisse Johnstun added that the program also helps other students with their interests as well, even if they aren't science related.

"One of the things I like about it is that it can include other kids, including PR and marketing, website, design. We've got kids that don't know how to do the robotics, but they have interests in business. We try to run it like a business with different departments," she said.

The club has been functional for about three years with the name CyberHounds being applied last year.

According to the FIRST website,, the program is more than robots. Participation is proven to encourage students to pursue education and careers in STEM-related fields, inspire them to become leaders and innovators, and enhance their 21 st century work-life skills.

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